Despite the debacle of 1969 and the Illini Union Board Homecoming Committee chairman's estimation that there would be no Homecoming the next year, there was a Homecoming in 1970. That year organizers and participants attempted to make the tradition “relevant:” They instituted Homecoming Saturday symposiums, put up anti-war house decorations and sold a stop-sign-shaped Homecoming badge boasting a slogan with a double meaning, WHEN THE BOYS COME HOME.
As the 1970s progressed, the Homecoming queen contest increasingly became a source of controversy. In 1973 the Illini Union Board dropped its sponsorship in response to charges that the yearly event was “irrelevant and sexist.” Sigma Alpha Epsilon kept the tradition alive for one year, and then the Panhellenic and the Interfraternity councils took charge of it from 1974 until 1978. In 1977 the event was renamed – for that year only – the Homecoming Regency Contest and opened for the first time to male candidates.
During this period, the Greeks on campus organized more and more of the Homecoming festivities. In 1979 the Student Alumni Association, in cooperation with the UI Alumni Association, assumed control of Homecoming. A “new breed of students is hitting the campus,” Josh Grafton ’83 LAS, the new Homecoming chairman, maintained, students who were “ready to return to the spirit of enthusiasm.” With the theme “Those Were the Days,” that year’s Homecoming revived the parade – which hadn’t been held since 1968 – and the all-campus dance and introduced an entirely new tradition: the Homecoming king.
During the subsequent decade or so, one innovation after another was unveiled as Homecoming expanded into a weeklong affair: a 5K run, Lunch on the Quad, orange-and-blue-day, a fireworks display, the African-American Homecoming, a UI Alumni Association tent party and the Illini Comeback Guests, a program begun by the UIAA in 1980 to honor “distinguished alumni from varied backgrounds” and which would later be described by one student as “the centerpiece of Homecoming.”
Homecoming flourished in the 1980s, buoyed by strong Illini football teams led by stand-out quarterbacks like Dave Wilson ’83, Tony Eason ’83 AHS, Jack Trudeau ’86 LAS and Jeff George ’91 LAS. Perhaps the most memorable Homecoming game of the decade occurred on Oct. 15, 1983, when 73,414 fans watched the Illini offense, spearheaded by Trudeau, drive 83 yards down the field in the last minute and 46 seconds of the game to defeat Ohio State for the first time in 16 years.
In the 1990s, Homecoming attendance began to decline, prompting concern from some. “I guess I’m enough of a traditionalist that it bothers me, if it really is true, that Homecoming is slipping at the school where it started,” one observer wrote in 1994.
Three years later, the UI Alumni Association set out to rejuvenate Homecoming. Backed by the Office of the Chancellor, the UIAA sought “to give Homecoming a face” and to move it away from being “the mere celebration of a football game,” in the words of The Daily Illini. The 1997 edition of the event restored old traditions like elaborate campus decorations, the bonfire and the wearing of Homecoming buttons.
One old tradition, however, made its final bow that year. During halftime of the football game against Purdue, the Homecoming king and queen opened their jackets to reveal shirts bearing the slogan “racial stereotypes dehumanize.” In subsequent years, the concept of a king and queen was replaced by the more egalitarian Homecoming Court.
During the 2000s, Homecoming endured. Like in the previous nine decades of its existence, the resilient annual ritual featured devastating losses (the 2005 drubbing by Penn State), magnificent victories (the 2001 rollercoaster run against Wisconsin) and community-minded events (such as the iHelp volunteer day; a family-friendly, community kickoff celebration; and SoccerFest, which paired children’s activities with a UI Varsity soccer game).